TORONTO — Panthers veteran Jussi Jokinen was part of a leadership group who called for a player’s only meeting Tuesday morning to discuss the team’s disappointing effort in Monday’s loss to the Sabres, especially on the heels of Saturday’s sterling rout of the Western Conference-leading Blackhawks.
Then before the evening’s game against the young, speedy resurgent Maple Leafs, Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe issued a warning to his core of young players who were given long-term contracts over the past few seasons.
“Just because guys don’t have contracts, doesn’t mean they can’t get traded either,” said Rowe, also the general manager. “They got to perform. Last night was unacceptable. We beat Chicago 7-0 playing good, then we go into Buffalo for a very, very big game and we come up with a 4-2 loss and they didn’t compete the way they were supposed to.
“At the end of the day, contracts are great. We did it for salary-cap reasons, but it doesn’t mean guys are going to retire (with the Panthers) if they keep playing like they did.”
Well, sometimes talent trumps talk and the Maple Leafs hammered another nail into the Panthers’ comatose playoff chances in a 3-2 defeat amidst a party-like atmosphere in Air Canada Centre.
As if the season could get any worse, the Panthers may have lost another goalie when James Reimer took a shoulder in the head from Brian Boyle and was forced from the game with 8:53 remaining in the second period. Colton Sceviour immediately stepped in to fight Boyle, while Reimer skated off slowly to the dressing room to most likely undergo the concussion protocol.
Reimer, who has a history of concussions during his six seasons with the Leafs, was replaced by Reto Berra with the Panthers down 2-0 (on 14 shots).
Reimer’s uncertain status may accelerate the return of Roberto Luongo as Rowe said earlier that the 37-year-old could possibly play on this road trip.
The Panthers showed life after that and cut the deficit to 2-1 after two as Keith Yandle sent a long pass to a streaking Reilly Smith for a chip-in, his 14th, at 15:31.
Just to rub it in, former Panthers prospect Zach Hyman delivered the knockout blow at 3:32 of the third on a short-handed goal, his 10th of his rookie season.
With the net empty plus a Toronto penalty, the Panthers had a 6-on-4 with 1:08 left, and Jaromir Jagr made it 3-2 on a rebound, his 15th, with 56 ticks left, but that was as close as they would get.
The Panthers couldn’t take advantage of Toronto’s struggling backup goalie Curtis McElhinney (24 saves), forced into action after starter Frederik Andersen left Saturday’s loss to the Sabres with a reported jaw injury.
While the Leafs (87 points) inch closer to securing their first playoff berth since 2012-13, the Panthers (77) drew closer to elimination. Now 0-2 on this must-sweep, four-game road trip and losers of 13 of 18, Florida trails Boston (86) by nine points with six games remaining.
Not including the four teams in front of the Panthers, if they ran the table for 89 points, the Bruins, Saturday’s opponent, could go 1-4-1 and still finish ahead of them for the wild card.
After 10 minutes of smothering defense from both sides, the Leafs rookie top line made it 1-0 at 11:54. William Nylander, 20, fed Hyman, 24 — a Panthers fifth-round pick in 2010 who they nurtured for four seasons in development camp before trading him to Toronto for current Lightning forward Greg McKegg — snuck a pass through the legs of an unsuspecting Yandle.
Then Auston Matthews, the overall No. 1 draft pick last June, deposited a softie past a surprised Reimer for his 35th goal, to lead all NHL rookies while also setting a franchise record for most goals by a rookie in a season, surpassing Wendel Clark’s 34 in 1985-86. Nylander extended his franchise rookie record point streak to 12 games.
The Leafs then broke out on a 2-on-1 rush with rookie defenseman Mike Matheson a helpless bystander, as Connor Brown set up Leo Komarov for a blast and 2-0 lead after one in which Toronto outshot Florida 13-3.
Rowe told his team before the game to be, “ready,” because the Leafs, who he referred to as the Blackhawks in the making, would remember Florida’s 7-2 beat down in Sunrise two weeks ago.
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